Latrobe - Rehearsing New Ending: Photo by Hayley Crawford
It has been a whirlwind of activity since the show opened in Wynyard on 20 March, with director Scott Rankin further fine-tuning the show in advance of every new performance. This included a Saturday matinee being added in Wynyard after the two scheduled performances sold out. As described in my last post, the show was not quite ready on opening night – from a technical point of view. But, as you would know by now, all Big hART projects juggle the goal to offer a ‘valued community experience’ with the creation of a ‘fully aestheticised work of art’. I hardly need to say that the world of theatre as we know it usually divides these two goals down the middle, and indeed keeps them well apart. And it is a core ambition to merge this two value systems that set Big hART apart from every other theatre company in Australia.
Latrobe - New Ending in Action: Photo Hayley Crawford
What I saw at Belvoir Street Theatre in January 2008, when Ngapartji Ngapartji was presented as part of that year’s Sydney Festival program, was a Big hART show at its at most theatrically evolved. But that high point had been eight years in the making. It was only after seeing the show and doing a bit of snooping around online, that I became aware of just how much more there was to to a Big hART project behind the scenes. How do I justify the fact that, at this point, a theatre lover like me had virtually no awareness of the previous 16 years of Big hART’s work? Well, the company started small and has taken many years to come to national attention. It is also a company without a home venue, and structured so horizontally that it operates beneath the detection of conventional media radar.
Lyric & Bucky - Glenorie: Photo by James Waites
My own personal excuse is that, just as the company began to emerge I, myself, disappeared. :For the eight years since I left the Sydney Morning Herald, I had spent much of my life ‘away from the theatre’ living on 25 acres up at Glenorie near Dural – north-west of Sydney, growing ponies, breeding vegetables, ‘picking and packing’ in a supplies warehouse, and working at a boarding kennel for yuppie puppies. This last was a great job: I used to do weekends when the boss took some time off, no other staff, and I had up to forty dogs on my own. The great achievement was to see if I could settle the lot of them down for an afternoon nap. After a big group play, of course.
Lyric & Romeo (the sire was an Arabian - hence the cute nose) - Glenorie: Photo by James Waites
Indeed it was not an easy life to abandon, but then again sometimes an abyss opens up between yourself and the person you once loved; and so it’s time to pack the Jeep Cherokee with whatever you can and, tail between your legs, turn up back in town.
Bucky as a shy teenager - Hawkesbury Show: Photo by Charles Clark
Maybe see if there is a chance to hook back into one’s previous life – which in my case has always been writing about ‘show business’ in some shape or form. When nobody in the print media was interested in a story about Big hART taking Ngapartji Ngapartji back ‘to country’ – the town of Ernabella, 600k’s south-west of Alice Springs (home to many in the cast) - I decided to leap into the 21st century and set up my own dinkylux blog-empire. Thus jameswaites.com was born. Six months down the track and I think me and the site are just starting to get to know each other – strengths and weaknesses.
Ludwig - my 70kg failed Harlequin Dane: Photo by James Waites
The above is a note to some of my readers who have only caught up with this site more recently. If you have not been here from the beginning, perhaps one day you take a look into the Ngapartji Ngapartji folder and see, not only where this online project of mine began; but also witness – mostly through the links to Brett Monaghan’s photos – the amazing creative adventure that was. And still is! In fact, just last week, a trailer-teaser was sent out by Ngapartji Ngapartji Creative Producer, Alex Kelly, to show us how the film doco, Lost For Words, shot on that trip, was coming together. It looks totally awesome! I wrote back to Alex: “I wish you guys would stop making me cry!”
But Ludwig Became a Famous Fashion Model Instead: Queen Victoria Building Season Catalogue
Brett and I entered that project at a very late phase of its evolution. With this most recent trip, we dropped into a project – This Is Living – still in its relative infancy: a mere two years in the process so far. To find out more about those two years can I suggest you go to the This is Living website and have a good look around. There is a heap of stuff up there. If you go to the Big hArt’s core site, you can find links to other previous shows or currently in various stages of evolution: including the new biggie – Gold – which is connecting up farming communities along the length of the Murray-Darling basin.
Bruce Myles on stage at Latrobe: Photo by Hayley Crawford
But back to Wynyard: immediately after the audience exited the theatre after the first performance, director Scott Rankin announced there would be a new end to the show the next night. This is the way tour worked from beginning to end: every day there would be another rehearsal of some sort and further fine-tuning. For an experienced observer in theatre-making like myself, it was fascinating to witness Rankin’s capacity for self-criticism, or is it unstoppable creative flow? And conditions were difficult. We would be visiting four towns across Tasmania, performing 12 times in seventeen days to over 2,000 people. Mostly in small-town community halls. This meant not only bumping-in and out of four entirely different venues, travel time, bedding into new digs; but also linking in with new ‘community’ cast members in each town.
Lex Marinos (Ron) with 'Witnesses' Mike Dixon and Alwyn Friedersdorff (foreground) at Latrobe: Photo by Amelia Dearnley
As mentioned in a previous post, the on-stage company comprised of three professional actors (Anne Grigg, Lex Marinos and Bruce Myles). We took four of the Wynyard community ‘seniors’ with us on tour to work with the newbies in each town; just as we took a small contingent of the Wynyard skaters to mix it with each new ‘youth’ group.
Choreographer Kelly Alexander with two Latrobe 'Witnesses, Elizabeth and John Skinner: Photo by Hayley Crawford
This meant that bumping in not only included re-erecting the set and re-lighting the show, hooking up all the audio etc; it also meant fresh rehearsals with the new ‘community’ performers. They were not entirely unprepared: senior production people, Chris Mead (Associate Director/Chorus Coordinator), Kelly Alexander (Choreographer), Stephanie Finn and Kirsty Grierson (Community Producers) had been working with these groups over previous months. This team was lead from the beginning (before the beginning!) by This is Living‘s Creative Producer, Sophia Marinos, who turned out on the tour to be one of the most capable and fun professionals I have ever worked with in my life.
This is Living's Creative Producer Sophia Marinos: Photo by Brett Monaghan
None of the new groups had yet experienced a tech run or dress with the full cast, and we might have only 24 hours before opening night. It was exhausting for everyone, especially the touring seniors, ‘the Wynyard Four’, and the three professionals. Astoundingly, spirits remained high and goodwill always the predominant vibe, no matter the fatigue or pressure.
Skating at Latrobe: Photo by Hayley Crawford
The towns we toured after Wynyard were Latrobe, not a great distance to the east on the north coast; then to Glenorchy (Greater Hobart), and finally south to Huonville/Franklin in the pretty Huon Valley. Not only did we have different venues and cast members in each town, for short seasons of two or three performances; but also changes to the script. Local touches were always added: Here’s a little from the opening song by the Dunaways:
The Dunaways: Photo by Brett Monaghan
Houses cling to hillsides. Watching over shipping lanes
Like a thousand widow’s walks, southwesterly, always the same….
The Inglis and the Emu, The Forth at Devil’s Gate
Always heading northward, To escape into the strait
The Mersey and the Leven, The Forth at Devil’s Gate
Always heading northward, To escape into the strait
The Picton and the Huon, The springs at Hasting’s Caves
Always heading southward to escape into the bay
The second and third shows at Wynyard were more successful technically as light, sound and audiovisual components settled in to place. And then there was the new ending. Initially, the three groups of actors – the three professionals, seniors and skaters – remained in their segregated worlds, even as bows were taken. But the drama cried out for union – in a way that reflected the experience of the company in rehearsal and about to go on tour. So Scott’s new ending involved a classic Big hART manouvre of the ‘Witnesses’ inviting audience members to dance with them, lights up on the skaters up back also slow dancing. And then a great shwhoosh forward as all the kids from up the back – about 20 in all – came running down to join the main cast and seniors in a massive moshpit shakedown. As per photographs at top of story.
Just as we had the community choir in Wynyard, in Latrobe we had the local brass band, the Latrobe Federal Band, the oldest continuously surviving brass band in Australia.
Latrobe Federal Band: Photo Hayley Crawford
I started my own project in Wynyard, under Scott Rankin’s suggestion, called ‘Everyone’s a Critic’, and I’ll say more about that another time. The Wynyard group included locals aged 16 to early 80. The Latrobe group focused on a senior high drama class with a few adults from the local community mixed in. Below is a picture of the Latrobe class, a very smart and fun group of Year 12 from Don Academy (Devonport), before we went in to see the show. Included in the photo, third from left, is Mary Kille who performed as a ‘Witness’ in the Wynyard version.
"Everyone's A Critic' in Latrobe, Don Academy Drama Teacher Keren Smithies (second row centre): Photo HayleyCrawford
Mary arrived at the Latrobe class with a poem she had written in response to her experience as a performer. It is dedicated to Anne Grigg, who plays one of the lead roles; and it describes how Mary once missed her cue, so transfixed was she on Anne’s performance.
Actor and Poet - Anne Grigg and Mary Kille: Photo by Neal Rodwell
I don’t know what you think, but when Mary read the poem to the class – in a voice flooded with humility and trembling grace - we were awestruck. The water images refer to the lines Anne’s character was delivering at the time. If this is what is born of a Big hART project, then Scott Rankin and his people must be doing something right.
I was transfixed by transient beauty,
as you descended that extraordinary stage,
and all your words and all your song
flowed like the river
where once you had swam
naked and glistening as a fish,
in dark water.
You spoke and sang of love and loss,
and yearning for the joy you’d known,
which now was gone for ever.
And I, a novice, bit-part player wept,
as those pedestrian, banal, intruding words
which I was meant to speak,
died in my throat;
and the guitarist, with his thrumming chords,
covered my lapse.
‘twixt audience and actor,
as from a spangled dew-dropped spider’s web,
the thread shone,